starring Jeremy Renner, Bruce Davison, Artel Kayaru, Matt Newton
written and directed by David Jacobson
by Walter Chaw Well-acted but without a point-of-view, hyphenate David Jacobson's sophomore feature Dahmer is less biopic than Arthouse Exploitation Lite, a curiously uninvolving glimpse into the banal life and times of a serial murderer. Rather than portray the stalking and vivisection of man as grotesquely vapid (like its more successful brothers Henry: Portrait of a Serial Killer or The Untold Story), Dahmer chooses that same all-too-familiar docudrama frankness to illustrate a sick man's loneliness and inability to make a true connection with another human being. It's not attempting to humanize Dahmer so much as it's attempting to elevate Dahmer to the level of great post-modern anti-hero: unromantic, unexceptional, and unmoored, utterly, from moral responsibility--Beavis playing frog baseball with a holy trinity of representative pretty-boy victims. Even its end title card, reporting (we infer "mournfully") that the titular bogey was murdered just two years into his 1,070-year sentence by a fellow inmate, seems intended as an epitaph for a misunderstood prophet rather than a declaration of karma asserting itself, penitentiary-style.
Dahmer (Jeremy Renner, the poor man's Devon Sawa, who is the poor man's Anthony Michael Hall) starts his career drugging dance partners at a gay club and raping them in the back room before escalating to dismemberment and, in the film's modern timeline, attempting to lobotomize cobbler-obsessed young Asian men with a power tool. The first clue that Dahmer is less cautionary tale or geek show than elegy for the misplaced machine gods of entropy and anarchy is the squeamish lack of gore and an early set-piece set in a Chocolate Santa factory. Transferring the mute replication of automated seasonal treat wrapping to Dahmer's ritualized stalking and murder behaviours, Jacobson seems to suggest that it is the plight of modern man to be driven in his endeavours by the unknowable reflex compulsions of sex and greed.
With an inexplicable wad of cash his constant companion, all that's left of this Dahmer is his industrial libido and the automaton-fashion in which he seeks to satisfy it. The purchase of a buck knife is as seductive a pose as sucking on a bong in Dahmer's pillow game--the atrocity is all about existential tragedy, empty not just for the killer's sociopathic mien, but also for the victims' equally perverse desire for acceptance from the most predatory representative of a frosty austere civilization. It's Orwell's social model boiled to its literal bones: the unquenchable flame of humanity brushing against the un-warmable impersonal sheen of the modern social order.
Where Dahmer fails is in its shorthand iconography. With a Caucasian (Lance (Matt Newton)), Black (Rodney (Artel Kayaru)), and Asian (Khamtay (Dion Basco)) victim, Dahmer's representations of the racial range of the killer's prey fall out uncomfortably along stereotypes of homosexuality (the closeted jock, the flamboyant queen, the coquette) and race alike. The morality of distilling actual victims into stock representations strikes me as a questionable practice at the best of times, but employing them as metaphors for a general societal disassociation was difficult for me to digest.
Featuring stellar performances all around (Bruce Davison is fabulous as Dahmer's dad), Dahmer is neither cautionary nor particularly revelatory--in fact, the breadth and variety of Dahmer's atrocities are never even mentioned. Jacobson is content instead to provide a pastiche of a subculture of shadows taking shadows' hands. The image midway of Kayaru dancing with a skeleton while Dahmer watches placidly encapsulates at once the picture's appeal and its problems: capable of entrancing with its hypnotic reserve, Dahmer is more generation-X than doom generation, too happy too often to make its point and then just sit idly by. Originally published: August 7, 2002.